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Milford, N.J., sets sights on spring completion of old paper mill demolition


Once upon a time 1,250 people worked there. Now a much smaller crew is tearing down the old Milford paper mill.

Several big yellow machines are clawing down the sprawling complex of buildings, sorting out the pieces and loading them onto trucks. Water is sprayed onto the rubble to control dust.

This work began in April, with completion expected in the first quarter of 2020, said project manager Gary Wroblewski of Arcadis, the environmental consulting firm managing the investigation and remediation of the site on behalf of International Paper and Georgia Pacific.

The four smoke stacks, ranging from 120 to 225 feet tall, still stand. “The schedule is dependent on the other work being completed around the stacks,” said Wroblewski. “Removal will be communicated to the mayor and the public in advance.”

Except for a little bit that’s in Alexandria Township, the paper mill property – 73 acres of it – is inside the borough. But because of state-imposed buffer zones protecting the Delaware River, Quequacomissicong Creek and a smaller stream, only a fraction of the land is buildable, said Milford Borough Councilman Bob White.

About a dozen years ago when they stopped making paper there, said Councilman Rob Castagna, the previous owners hastily salvaged what they could, unmindful of the asbestos they were stirring up. The unsecured site became a toxic playground for local children.

He and his wife, Linda, raised a ruckus, which was augmented and focused by then-state legislator Marcia Karrow, and soon the federal Environmental Protection Agency had listed it as a Superfund site, and it was secured by a chain-link fence.

The land is owned by International Paper, according to former mayor Ron Rehl. International Paper has cleaned up the site in cooperation with Georgia Pacific. The bulk of the property has been “delisted,” said White, but there is some remaining groundwater pollution near the creek that is being addressed through biological remediation.

Although International Paper has not indicated what it will do with the property, the borough has filed with the state a redevelopment plan for the buildable 21 acres, said Mayor Henri Schepens. Such a plan has more weight than mere zoning, and it calls for a mix of housing, such as apartments and condos, and light industry, such as medical offices or a long-term care facility, he said.

After the demolition, it’ll be up to the owner to find a developer who wants to buy it “and bring Milford back to the pride of the valley. It’ll be wonderful,” Schepens said.

The borough has been in serious financial trouble ever since this huge ratable was deemed essentially worthless. So it’s important that new ratables be built there. “Crazy ideas like horse parks and wildflower parks go out the window,” said Castagna.

Schepens noted that redeveloping the unsightly and dangerous old mill is a major element in a Milford revitalization effort that includes creating a riverfront park, connecting with the hiking/biking trail that extends north from Frenchtown, sending students in grades 6-8 to Kingwood’s school, and refurbishing the railroad tracks for excursion trains.

The paper mill was built in 1907 by the Riegel family and made a variety of specialty papers, most notably waxed paper, which helped Kellogg keep its cereal fresh, and glassine paper, the grease-proof paper used in white inner wrapper of Hershey bars. In 1961 the Milford mill had 1,250 employees, according to Riegel literature.

In the 1970s, ownership of the paper mill – plus three others in Holland Township – passed out of the Riegel family and through a succession of other companies.

White explained that when the federal Environmental Protection Agency assigned responsibility for cleaning up the site, it picked “the last man standing,” – the most viable of the owners or ex-owners. Those companies – International Paper and Georgia Pacific – chose to get busy fixing the problem, rather than fighting the assignment in court. Both White and Castagna praised the spirit of cooperation that has prevailed between these paper companies and the borough.

For local residents, the paper mill cleanup has taken forever, but the EPA was dazzled by the speed of this project, Castagna said. He noted, “This is one of the few Superfund sites that’s ever come off the list.”

Despite his enthusiasm for Milford’s future, Mayor Schepens said some are sad to see such a meaningful landmark disappear. But Riegel retiree Bob Schenewolf is unsentimental. He said the demolition of obsolete factories is “just the way it is.” He compared it to “taking your old car to the junk yard.”

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